According to a December report issued by U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, obesity is reaching “epidemic proportions” and approaching tobacco as the most lethal killer in America.
This month, the Berkeley Unified School District is confronting the epidemic head-on.
In its second annual March celebration of National Nutrition Month, the district is sponsoring cooking demonstrations, vegetable tastings and spring plantings at schools throughout the system to promote healthy eating.
“Most of the public is pretty aware of the tobacco issue...but the rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes are alarming,” said Erica Peng, supervisor of the district’s nutrition network program.
According to the Surgeon General’s report, more than 61 percent of adults and 14 percent of adolescents are affected by obesity, while 300,000 Americans die each year from health problems directly related to obesity.
Satcher called for required physical education and healthy eating in public schools as two of the primary weapons in the fight to reduce obesity.
Physical education is required in the Berkeley schools, kindergarten through 8th grade, and for two years in high school.
The district, in collaboration with the city and several local non-profits, kicked off nutrition month with a March 12 event at the Farmers’ Market and a similar, March 16 event at the Ashby Flea Market. Activities included cooking demonstrations, games and a compost giveaway.
Since then, gardening and cooking instructors at various schools have led spring plantings at school gardens, vegetable tastings and seed giveaways, among other activities.
At John Muir Elementary School, students have donned capes and acted as “5 a Day” rangers, promoting the virtues of eating five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
“We’re hoping students will get a better idea of how to take care of their bodies,” said John Muir Principal Nancy D. Waters.
Wednesday afternoon, at Emerson Elementary School, the after school program staff will line the cafetorium walls with six tables in a “nutrition merry-go-round.” Students will go from table to table, assembling healthy granola snacks at a “granola bar,” potting vegetables and decorating the pots, among other activities. Pupils will choose from various cooking utensils as prizes.
Carrie Orth, cooking instructor at Emerson, said students will learn several lessons over the course of the day. At the granola bar, she said, they’ll have a lesson in measuring and apportionment, while the potting exercise will create a direct link between growing food and what children eat.
The district provides cooking and gardening courses throughout the year through its nutrition network program.
The program, currently in its third year, is funded in part by a federal grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. This year’s grant totaled $1.2 million.
Schools that provide free and reduced lunch to over 50 percent of their students are eligible for the grant money. This year, 10 Berkeley schools qualify and the federal dollars are paying for cooking and gardening instructors at most of the schools.
Waters said the instructors incorporate science and math lessons into their work every day. For instance, she said, students learn to measure caterpillars or study the effect of oxygen on decomposing vegetables.